Power Pant vs spinner Lyon: Duel captures India story for the ages

RISHABH PANT’S match-winning 89 under the harsh Brisbane sun was draining. But at the end of it all, he didn’t look like a superhero on the verge of collapse. It was more of an unfazed millennial hoping that when the history-making photographs are taken, his hair parting would still be in place.

“The only thing I keep on thinking every day is that I want to win matches for India,” Pant said at the end of his unbeaten knock. Head coach Ravi Shastri looked ahead: “By keeping his composure like today, if he can keep winning matches, it will be huge for us.”

On Tuesday, Pant hit arguably the most important four in Indian cricket history when he smashed Josh Hazlewood to long-off for the winning runs to complete a dramatic final day of the series that went India’s way. Incidentally, that shot from the Roorkee-born came nearly 10 years after another smalltowner M S Dhoni had walloped a six to trigger hysteria on a Mumbai night.

Before this tour, Pant was known for impetuousness and brawn. Brisbane had him adding maturity and self-control. It wasn’t the usual Pant Power that did it for India. His battle with offspinner Nathon Lyon captured how he had crafted a knock to savour for ages.

Rishabh Pant hits the ball for six runs during play on the final day of the fourth cricket Test between India and Australia at the Gabba, Brisbane, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

Lyon knew Pant doesn’t loft inside-out over covers on the offside. And so, he kept luring him on that line around off stump, at times even turning it away from outside. ‘Fetch it from there, drag it across the line if you want to win this game’, was the challenge from the man who is playing his 100th Test.

No one manned the deep cover region. The Australian palms were ready and itching at long-off and long-on. Once, Pant charged down the track but the ball leaped past the blade — even if wicketkeeper Tim Paine had gathered the high-bouncing ball he couldn’t swoop in time as Pant swung the bat up and over his shoulder, and got it back in the crease. Be that as it may, the off-side trap wasn’t a secret anymore. What would Pant do?

He dashed down again, this time the ball on the off and middle was thrown back by fans beyond long-on. Lyon altered the line to outside off. And he largely stayed there. Pant would let them turn past him or bunt them for the odd singles. In the aftermath, he would shadow-practice the lofted drive over covers. It would remain in the shadows, never seeing the Brisbane sun.

World No.1 ranked batsman Kane Williamson’s long-time coach David Johnston WhatsApped from New Zealand: “Will he play that inside-out shot, you reckon now in search for quick runs?” Like the left-handers Gautam Gambhir or Suresh Raina, who were famous for that shot. But Pant continued to shadow-play.

The required run-rate kept inching over and a thought bubbled up: if the seamers controlled the runs from the other end, would Pant go for the shot that he doesn’t like playing? Lyon kept hoping he would. Perhaps, the pre-series Pant would have. Perhaps, even the Sydney Pant would have. But the Brisbane Pant wasn’t taking the bait.

The game-awareness and the self-awareness wouldn’t have been easy. For a power hitter, once the hands start to go, the attacking urge cues up exponentially; they like to keep going on. Like Pant did in the previous Test. Like Lyon probably thought he would do again. Occasionally, he stepped out and swung over long-on but to balls in line of the stumps. It was the closest Pant will probably ever get to Sachin Tendulkar’s abstinence of 2004 Sydney when he cut out the cover drive from his double hundred. Tendulkar did it because he could. Pant did it because he had to.

It’s easy to be one-dimensional — either to attack or defend. But it’s not easy to do what Pant did, under pressure, with a series on line, with the clock ticking, with the threat of rain looming, with run-rate pressure ratcheting.

He was similarly controlled against the seamers. Only when six runs remained did he swing his arms and play to the gallery — and almost holed out. Until then, he didn’t extend himself. In the past, even in Ranji Trophy cricket, opponents have exploited his penchant to pull from outside off stump. He cut that out. The Australians shifted the bouncers to his body, hoping for a miscued pull. He cut that out. Instead, he punched on the up through off and cut them to distraction. With their preferred lengths bleeding runs, they tried to ping the full length, but he creamed them through the line.

By now, cracks were opening up on a length — the kinds where the late Tony Greig would famously try pushing his car keys through in his pitch reports — but it was the Australian resolve that disintegrated in the end.

“Dukh nahi baanta hai bhai, sirf kushi (I have never shared sorrow, only joy),” Pant had once told this newspaper about how he hid his emotions from his mother and sister following the death of his father shortly after his first IPL auction. “If I had broken down then, who would take care of my mother and sister? Someone had to be strong and do it. Take responsibility. It was a life-changing moment for us; so I had to carry them through.”

Just like how he dragged his team beyond the line today.


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